Seeing sports through the eyes of a child

Former Boston Celtics great Bill Russell arrives for the Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony Friday at Symphony Hall in Springfield, Mass.                       JIM ROGASH / Getty
Former Boston Celtics great Bill Russell arrives for the Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony Friday at Symphony Hall in Springfield, Mass.                       JIM ROGASH / Getty
Posted: August 11, 2014

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - The eyes of the kids waiting outside the ropes at the Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony Thursday were practically as wide as center circles.

When 6-foot-11 Alonzo Mourning moved past on the red carpet, the youngsters cocked their heads and gasped. While their parents clicked off photos of the passing inductees, the kids stood frozen in awe.

"Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are going to be here, too," one noted, looking at the list of presenters for Friday night's Class of 2014 induction ceremony. "This is so cool."

I sat in a chair just a few yards away, a media credential around my neck, a pen and notebook in my hands. The parade of stars held no particular fascination for me. I was weary after a 6 1/2-hour drive from a previous assignment. This was just another interview, another story, another deadline.

It would have been nice if, for just this afternoon, I could have borrowed those youngsters' eyes.

Mine missed the wonder.

All I could see were the banners of corporate sponsors hanging overhead, the numerous TV monitors whose presence seemed to assume we were incapable of viewing the event without them, and the clock.

I guess I'm jaded. I'm sure I'm old. My Medicare card arrived in the mail last week. I love my job, but the appeal of sports and the athletes who play them has receded as steadily as my hairline.

The games I so eagerly consumed taste stale now. The Eagles still interest me, but only once a week and for only a few months a year. The Phillies, perhaps because baseball sells nostalgia so well, can hold my attention. Forget the Flyers and 76ers.

Like so many of my contemporaries, I grouse about a changing and increasingly unfamiliar sports world. Late games. Long games. X Games.

Where have all the doubleheaders gone?

But those kids behind the rope line opened my eyes.

What really irks us about sports isn't how they've changed. It's how we've changed.

We graying curmudgeons like to gripe. Today's players make too much, strike out too much, celebrate too much. TV calls the shots. Tickets are too expensive.

But my grandfather had many of the same complaints. And later, so did my father. What we all moan about and mourn isn't so much the altered landscape - it's the innocence we've lost, the purity left behind in what F. Scott Fitzgerald called "the country of youth."

Sports and heroes are best perceived by the innocent. Kids don't see, or can easily overlook, problems that rankle adults. But as we age, we grow more cynical. The things that once thrilled us don't look and feel the same. We lose the filter of youth.

When I was a youngster, Braves slugger Eddie Mathews was my idol. Decades later, I met him. He was crude and gruff. I was disillusioned. He was probably crude and gruff at 25, too. But I doubt I'd have noticed. Or cared.

When we were young, we didn't mind that Connie Mack Stadium was filled with obstructed-view seats, sat in the middle of a decaying neighborhood, and peddled watered-down Cokes and soggy hot dogs.

We saw instead the green grass, the crisp white uniforms, the gods.

Maybe that's why fathers taking their children to ball games is such a national ritual. Everything looks better and fresher through a child's eyes.

Perhaps by awakening an interest in sports in our children, we help rekindle it in ourselves. Left alone, after all, we'd likely grumble and grouse and eventually phone WIP.

I tried to put myself in the Nikes of those kids behind the ropes. If I were 12 and witnessing this same ceremony, I'd surely have been breathless, too. Not because this event was any better or worse than one from the 1960s, but because I was 12.

One of the Hall inductees, after all, was the late Guy Rodgers. He was the point guard on my all-time favorite Philly team, the 1961-62 Warriors.

I can still see my mother writing his name in her notebook, along with the three other Philadelphians who joined him in the lineup - Wilt Chamberlain, Tom Gola, and Paul Arizin - as she turned on the radio in our kitchen and prepared to score another Warriors game.

For my mother, I know now, it was merely a distraction. But as I sat there with her, in a cloud of cigarette smoke, I was certain nothing happening anywhere else was nearly as important.

The mention of another inductee, Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, summoned up black-and-white memories of set shots and short pants and Convention Hall games with my father.

Wow, there was Al Attles. He played with Wilt in the 100-point game. And Nolan Richardson, who was coached by one of the greatest characters I've ever met, Don Haskins.

Those kids behind the rope line were right. This really was quite a show.

Eventually, the ceremony ended. The kids dispersed. I did my interviews and wrote and filed the story. Then I took a quick walk around the Hall, looking, I suppose, for what was lost.

In a hallway, close to a photo of Wilt Chamberlain battling Bill Russell for a rebound, I passed some of the kids who had been behind the ropes.

I wanted to tell them about Wilt and his battles with Russell and the Celtics, about his 100 points and his 55 rebounds and the night in 1967 at Convention Hall when his Philly team finally beat Boston.

Instead, without a word, I let them pass. They had memories of their own to make.


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